Well, if you want to get more of an idea of autism, where better than from the autobiography of an autistic woman?
This was partly why I started reading this book, having contact with some kids with autism, and also being aware that it’s not an ‘either/or’ dichotomy: all of us are somewhere on a long continuum. However along the way there was so much wild trauma going on with Williams’ abusive family and multiple personalities it became very difficult to distinguish what in her life was a result of her autism and what was a refection of circumstances or other complicating psychological conditions. I will be curious to see if there are any Amazon reviews written by autistics and how they reacted. I wouldn’t be surprised if, while they are glad to see awareness raised, many would be dismayed to think Donna came to represent a popular image of what autistic people are like (cf. the deaf community dealing with Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish).
As a foil, I was quite impressed by Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, both as an insight into the world of a lead character who is autistic and as a decent fictional story in it’s own right. Nobody Nowhere is trying to do something entirely different, although it also has a narrator who’s not entirely self-aware. I also note that at least one autistic guy gave enthusiastic praise that one of us ‘neuro-normals’ had got it so right. Still, Haddon’s lead character, while having a family with its own difficulties, has nothing on Donna’s nightmare.
I suppose the really tricky part for me in this review is that after a while I really got to a point of disliking Donna. A dangerous thing to say: “A-ha – he doesn’t like an autistic girl – he must be a bigot.” Well, I hope not, and on further reflection I suspect not. Indeed, it’s more bigoted to say, “That person is autistic, I must, therefore, like them.” Like that nasty self-deceptive patronising racism that says something like, “I just love Mexicans – they’re so cute. I love their funny hats and have a couple of CDs of that wonderful guitar music.” Donna, like a lot of us, has her problems, many of which are not her own fault. However, we do get shaped by our circumstances, and not always in positive ways – not always in ways that make us good company. So much of Donna’s self analysis I found pretty dubious: hey, I don’t always understand why I act the way I do – I’m pretty sure that neither does Donna. Sure it’s interesting, indeed, primary, to hear her perspective (and you really sympathise with her trying to make sense, to find some explanation for her personal history) – but I found myself often unconvinced.
Particularly hard going were the ubiquitous contradictory actions along the lines of, “I really liked this guy, he was so considerate and I wanted desperately to be with him – so I abused him and forced him to leave.” Moreover there is a real contempt for, well, most other people. They can make all sorts of efforts to reach out to Donna, to allow for her, while she treats them horribly, but somehow they are always seen to be at fault:
I found that people were usually blinded by their own insecurities or egotism or selfishness. People seemed so ignorant in their self-assured black and white conception of ‘normality’. Every so often, however, someone would wonder whether others had something to learn from me in trying to understand my differentness. Some people could sense the courage it took to teach myself so many things like the music I wrote with such depth and passion.
But if you’re looking for blindness stemming from insecurities, egotism or selfishness, strewth, Donna is there for you. Even in this excerpt she unabashedly talks of the depth and passion of her music, elsewhere she’s clearly convinced of her intellectual superiority to just about anyone: say, for example, any university lecturer who doesn’t recognise her genius.
So, sorry, somewhere around the above quote, about three-quarters of the way through the book I thought to myself: I don’t think I’m learning anything much about autism here, and I really don’t like hanging around with this confused, arrogant and often unpleasant woman. I bailed.